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Efficient Locker Room Design Maximizes Use of Small Spaces

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From high-tech lock technology to plush lounge areas, whirlpools, Internet access and private showers and dressing areas, it's easy to sink a significant amount of money into creating the ultimate locker room.

(Photo by Paul Turang Photography)(Photo by Paul Turang Photography)

From high-tech lock technology to plush lounge areas, whirlpools, Internet access and private showers and dressing areas, it's easy to sink a significant amount of money into creating the ultimate locker room. If you run a college facility looking for a recruiting edge or a high-end club specializing in luxury, such amenities can pay off. But for owners of smaller clubs and recreational facilities limited by budget or space, such a design might mean a subpar fitness area or other sacrifices to program spaces.

The locker room contributes to users' overall experience, but it's not usually the primary reason they come to an athletic facility. Such was the mindset of the owners of a Fraser, Colo., community recreation center when they opened their facility in 2009. "Locker rooms are not really a revenue generator - they support the revenue-generating spaces," says Andrew Barnard, president of Denver-based Sink Combs Dethlefs, which designed the building. "In their minds, it was like, 'Hey, we're going to spend money on the pool, gymnasium, fitness center, gymnastics space, running track - all of those things that will bring people through the door.'"

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Even without budget constraints, locker rooms are receiving less attention as many facilities see more users avoiding them altogether. Says Barnard, "As the years have gone by, we've seen fewer and fewer people showering and changing at rec centers. They come all ready to work out and then they get in their car and drive home."

This type of behavior is changing how designers view the function (and functionality) of locker rooms. The actual "locker" aspect of the locker room is being outsourced, putting lockers where they are more easily accessed by users seeking a place to store car keys, a purse or a pair of shoes. Less space is dedicated to the locker room, which is becoming a place for members just seeking to change clothes.

"We haven't done a building yet - although we've gotten close in a couple of instances - where we say, 'Hey, people don't need a locker room,' " says Barnard. "They need a toilet and maybe a small dressing space, but they don't need lockers all lined up in a room. We've come close to that, but we've never taken that leap, just because it is pretty unconventional."

Forgoing locker rooms entirely might be a bit extreme, but minimizing the space they take up is a popular choice for many facility owners seeking more space to accommodate primary activities. A smaller locker room design starts by weeding out users who don't actually need to be there. While requiring users of an aquatics area to enter and exit via a locker room entrance makes sense to encourage users to shower as required or recommended by health codes, access to fitness or other activity areas should have alternate routes to accommodate users who don't need to shower or change. Restroom areas save space when combined with locker rooms, but separate entrances should be incorporated to allow users to come and go without passing through the changing and showering areas.

Reducing the traffic caused by these two populations means that the locker rooms are being used just for those who need to change or shower or require locker storage, but even the latter group can be weeded out. "For the whole population that comes to the club ready to work out, not intending to change or shower, there's really no need for them to come into the locker room just to use a locker. You can take care of their secure storage needs in a space where the lockers are positioned to serve men and women," says Hervey Lavoie, president of the Denver-based architectural firm Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative.

Not only does this coed approach reduce the number of lockers needed, but offering a range of sizes allows a facility owner to meet its members' needs in the most efficient way possible. Express lockers, as Lavoie refers to them, can come in a variety of sizes, from small enclosures sized to just hold a set of keys or a wallet to larger lockers capable of accommodating a coat or a backpack. Express lockers can be located in the lobby of a facility, where members can quickly stash their belongings on the way in and grab them on the way out, or they can be incorporated into the activity setting - participants in a fitness class can change shoes before class begins and then store their gym bags close by.

This arrangement is also beneficial to members who use the locker room to change but prefer to keep their belongings at hand. Among other reasons, many users feel more comfortable using storage areas that are out in the open, where they can be monitored by either the facility's staff or the user, an added reassurance that their high-tech gadgets and other valuables are safely stored.

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Extra benches set away from lockers allow users to spread out. (Fred Coester Photography)

Once traffic is redirected so that only those who need to shower and change are entering the locker room, attention to design keeps a smaller space from becoming cramped. "There's always an issue about comfort in a locker room," says Barnard. "You've got to be cognizant of creating a space that is so tight and compact that it's no longer efficient for people to be dressing at the same time."

Making a space so small that members are bumping into each other or have to reach across one another is a sure way to minimize usage of a locker room, and possibly a facility. "A lot of space efficiency is perception," says Lavoie. "Put a lot of doors and a lot of rooms and corridors in a locker room and you're going to create a perception of congestion and a cramped environment. Keeping it open, you'll have the same amount of space, but it isn't going to feel as crowded."

Simply having doors cuts down on available space, says Lavoie, who adds, "You have to have clearance and you've got to be careful about doors swinging out into circulation areas and clocking somebody walking by." To create better circulation, he recommends leaving them off altogether. "You still have to design sightline baffles to keep people from looking into the locker room from the outside whether you have the door or not. Not having a door allows you to have a more generous width where two people can pass comfortably, as opposed to a one-way traffic situation where if somebody is coming in as you're going out, somebody has to step aside."

Open space can make a room feel bigger, but not if users have to compete for space around the lockers themselves. User choice is key to creating an efficient use of space in a locker room. When each user in a facility has an assigned locker, it's possible that two or more users may be competing for space in one area while a large portion of the room sits empty. Allowing users to select their own locker lets them spread out and take advantage of open space. Even when users are occupying lockers close together, having additional benches set apart from the lockers gives people space to spread out as needed. "I like the stool idea myself," adds Lavoie. "It's meant to be portable, you're not sharing it with anybody, and you can put it right where you need it."

Open spaces give users more room to move freely, but also raise concerns about privacy. Modest locker room users prefer a segmented setup, where users aren't necessarily in view of each other. Such an arrangement, while user-friendly, sacrifices efficiency and shouldn't necessarily be expected by members. "Privacy and locker rooms do not go hand in hand," says Lavoie. "It comes with the territory. You're in a locker room at an athletic club, and you're not the only member. The idea that somehow you're going to provide privacy in a public environment like that is a false goal. Once you start creating screens, compartments and privacy barriers, you start eating into your efficiency. You're better off providing an alternate locker choice, a changing room for people who are uncomfortable in a typical locker room."

In addition to the primary groups for whom these rooms are intended, family or mixed-gender changing rooms provide an alternative for the minority of users uncomfortable with anything less than total privacy. Since many building codes require a facility to offer this type of changing area for people with disabilities, it makes sense to provide these private spaces rather than try to please everyone with the design of the main locker room.

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Lockers in open areas are convenient for users who simply need a place to store a bag. (Fred Coester Photography)

The ultimate determinant of how small a locker room can get is the amount of space needed for the lockers themselves. The number of lockers a facility needs can be a complicated issue, with the size of the facility and the number of members serving only as a starting point. "There's no tried-and-true formula that I know of," says Barnard. "Usually, it comes down to a whole combination of things."

The type of facility often dictates how locker rooms are used, and thus how many lockers are needed. An athletic facility that offers aquatics is going to see a higher percentage of users needing to shower and change. Fitness centers where users come and go at sporadic intervals may not need as many lockers, since demand is somewhat spread out. For recreational facilities offering group activities or hosting competitions, peak demand can necessitate more lockers or more locker room spaces. "If you have fitness classes or a basketball league or something like that where you get a concentration of people who show up before a class or a game," explains Barnard, "they need to use the locker room before and after the game. If you're really restricting locker room sizes, you may only be serving a quarter or a third of the population that really needs to use the locker room at that time."

Having one very large locker room to meet peak demand can be chaotic, especially for competitive sports that require separate spaces for different teams. In such a case, Barnard suggests a hockey room setup. "In hockey, a pretty common concept is to have individual dressing rooms but then share showers and toilets. It works out really well operation- and management-wise, and it saves money because you're sharing the wet spaces that really cost a lot of money between dressing rooms."

These setups, also called flex rooms, are becoming more common and serve more than just hockey. In one facility, says Barnard, "we had some team dressing rooms because we were doing roller-hockey in one gym, indoor soccer in another gym, and potentially basketball leagues in another gym. But the facility also had drop-in fitness and a climbing wall, so it was important to provide a locker room for those users, as well. So we had multiple locker room spaces, none of them very big and none of them very elaborate, but we used that concept to handle all of the different users of the facility."

While in the past, many facility owners have focused on getting as many lockers into the locker room as possible, smarter planning takes into account the number and type of lockers actually needed to meet user demand. Explains Barnard, "People are saying, 'We'd rather have fewer but bigger lockers because nobody is using the smaller lockers. What's the point of having them? We'd rather have something that people will actually use.'"

But large lockers can waste as much space as scorned small lockers, if a user is only storing a couple of items. The best solution is to incorporate different sizes of lockers, allowing users to select a size that is appropriate for their needs. For facilities undergoing remodeling, tracking past locker room usage or surveying users is the best way to determine the right mix.

If quantity is still an issue, Lavoie suggests maximizing space by building a level of lockers higher than the typical 6-foot standard. "You push that up to 7 feet or even 7½, and you might find that half the population is going to have trouble using that top locker. That half of the population can use a bottom locker. Going a little higher creates more storage capacity and allows more options than trying to keep everything in reach for a shorter person."

But the size and height of a locker are irrelevant if a facility's members aren't using the locker room. Members of the younger generation tend to be more modest, preferring to arrive already dressed and forgo public showers in favor of their own. For this group, more designs are focusing on open-area lockers in various sizes and including fewer lockers actually in the locker room. But older users, Barnard notes, are just the opposite. "We're renovating an existing rec center, and the center's users are primarily seniors. This is a case where everybody who comes in uses the locker room; that's just the way they were conditioned. When we looked at locker rooms, we tried to decide whether we should eliminate showers and use that space for better things, but the managers of the building said, 'With the population that we serve, we actually need to add showers.'"

As much consideration, if not more, must go into planning a small locker room space as a large luxury space. All space must be accounted for and used to its maximum potential while preserving user satisfaction. "As a designer, all you try to do is think through the user experience," says Lavoie. "If part of the reason to join a facility is the locker rooms - the amenities, showers and all that - you obviously need to anticipate that people are going to want to experience that. The design needs to fit with the overall experience you're trying to deliver to your market."

Smaller locker rooms can still take advantage of design details that influence a user's perception. Adding higher-quality tile and giving careful attention to materials and color make any locker room feel more inviting. "Locker rooms are one of those environments where you can spend an awful lot of money on finishes and materials and lockers; they can turn out to be very expensive spaces or they can turn out to be much more cost-effective." says Barnard. "If we can minimize the size but get the basic design to function well and augment that basic core with other storage options throughout the building, we've found that to be a very good recipe."

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